2007-12-06 / News

State program heats up island homes

By Michaela Kennedy

On the surface, Jamestown appears to many as an affluent, comfortable place to live. Yet, according to one non-profit health and human services organization, 67 local households have sought help with heating assistance this season, and the number continues to grow.

Debbie Hambly, director of Housing and Energy at the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP) notes that the number of people helped by the program does not change significantly from year to year. "Every year, we lose 10 or 15 families, and we gain others," she says. Nevertheless, in her 28 years of service, Hambly has seen the numbers of East Bay families helped by the program steadily grow from 3,000 to over 4,400 households.

The Rhode Island Heating and Energy Office administers the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) through EBCAP for the East Bay area with funding from the state. The assistance program is designed to help low-income clients meet the costs of home energy, according to the director at East Bay. The program typically opens in mid-September, with a general closing date in April, depending on funding.

This year, however, the fund is short by millions, which may translate into a much earlier closing date, Hambly warns. LIHEAP plans to provide about $15.5 million in heating assistance statewide, $4 million dollars than last year, as reported by the state Office of Energy Resources. "It could close as early as February. That's scary because it's one of the coldest months when people need it most," Hambly says.

In addition, no money in the state budget was slated to fund a newly created state heating assistance program that was passed into law in 2006. Funding for the program was proposed at $15 million, but taken away by the General Assembly. "We were counting on that. It was a big part of the heating program," Hambly adds.

Despite the lack of funding, Hambly goes on to praise Energy Resources for running "a wonderful program." Authorization for heating cost relief usually happens within 24 hours of the submission of an application. EBCAP makes payments directly to vendors who then credit the client's account for the amount specified. Eligible clients also qualify for a reduced electric rate as well as a discount on the client's telephone bill.

The Providence Journal reported last month that the program's grant money currently applies only to electric and natural gas customers, but Hambly notes that some local oil companies are ready to support the cause. "I have oil vendors that will deliver free of charge," she said.

The agency received around $12,000 in private donations last year, according to the agency. Last year, Hambly had enough money in donations to use the money for people whose incomes were just little high for the program's guidelines, but were in crisis, like a family whose child was sick. She hopes that this year's donations will be enough to fill in the major shortage from the government. "We have some philanthropic friends who come through for us every year," she adds.

Another program that runs hand in hand with heating assistance is the weatherization program. The R.I. Department of Energy pays for work done on a home to increase energy efficiency. Renovations, such as insulation of walls and attics, weatherize a home so a family spends less money on heat. "You're talking a 30-percent decrease in energy usage," Hambly says. Since 1990, the DOE has weatherized over 100 homes on the island, free of charge.

National Grid has paid for a big chunk of the weatherization program. "They've been more than generous with the weatherization assistance program in the state," Hambly comments.

For information on how you can help or find help to stay warm this winter, go online to www.ebcap. org, or call 847-7821.

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